Passionate about building to Passive House standards, Shaun St-Amour from Clay Construction talks about associated costs, energy savings, consumer choice, and the importance of challenging the status quo as the industry looks to build resilient, healthy homes with a lighter footprint on the environment.
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About the Speaker
Shaun St-Amour, VP of Operations, Clay Construction
Shaun is very passionate about resilient prefab passive houses. He is the VP of Operations for Clay Construction Inc. Before this position, he was the Outreach and Education Associate with 475 High Performance Building Supply. He graduated from The University of British Columbia with a degree in Wood Products Processing. He is a certified Passive House Tradesperson. Shaun also obtained a Building Construction Technology Associate Certificate at BCIT while working at Viceroy Homes and BOSA Construction. He was a general contractor under Footprint Sustainable Housing Corp. Shaun has also been involved with the Passive House Accelerator. If Shaun isn’t talking about passive houses, he’s playing Lego with his daughters or working on his hubby-do list.
Here's the Full Transcript of this Episode
[00:00:00] Jennifer-Lee: Hey Mike. Today is our final episode of Season Five of HAVAN’s Podcast, Measure Twice, Cut Once. I can’t believe that’s a wrap already for Season 5.
[00:00:10] Mike: Oh, Jennifer Lee, it’s always great to be here and you know, they go by so fast. We have so much fun doing it, and this is going to be a really exciting way to cap it off. This season we’ve discussed a ton of amazing building trends, like really mapping out the future of this industry, talking with builders from a wide spectrum across the industry, including single-family homes, stratifying lots to duplexes, net zero townhomes, infill projects, and building with steel.
[00:00:34] Jennifer-Lee: And don’t forget the house with electrochromatic windows like the ones found in the new Boeing planes.
[00:00:39] Mike: Absolutely. It’s been truly an amazing season, and today’s guest is the perfect guest to wrap up such a power-packed season. We have so much to talk about, so let’s bring him on.
[00:00:48] Jennifer-Lee: Oh, I’m so excited to interview this guy. I feel like he’s HAVAN famous. His name is Shaun St-Amour from Clay Construction. And everyone talks about how lovely he is, and I finally got to meet him and he, of course, he’s passive house famous as well. We’re thrilled to have you come today, and like I said, I’ve just been wanting to talk to you for a long time, so I’m kind of fangirling at the moment.
[00:01:08] Shaun: Well, thank you for having me again. It’s a real honor to be here to talk to you guys again to wrap up your fifth season. And again, appreciate all the podcasts and, and audio that you’re putting out there to educate our community, which is great.
[00:01:19] Mike: Shaun, so glad you could join us and we’ve known each other for a while and I’m really excited to have this conversation with you today. For those of you who don’t know Shaun, Shaun is known both locally and arguably across North American markets as a knowledgeable passive house guru of sorts. Basically, let’s talk about your background because we really have to set the table to have this conversation where you are coming from.
[00:01:40] Mike: You are a little bit younger than some of the other folks who have joined us, and it’s kind of shocking when you see someone young, and you go, how does that guy have so much experience? And we’re going to cover that in a few minutes. You’ve covered so much ground in all these years in the industry. Can you walk us through your story a little bit? How did you get involved in passive house? Where did you get your passion for the passive house movement? And maybe a little about your current relationship with our friends at Clay Construction.
[00:02:02] Shaun: Yeah, absolutely. So, we go back to a time where I got into prefabrication of homes. So, I was working at a company called Viceroy Homes that was building six to 12 houses per day and shipping them off to Japan. And I got an opportunity to travel to Europe and see not only the high-performance standard that they had for prefabrication, but also just the high standard of just building better with natural materials. And so, kind of kept going back to Europe and in 2011 I brought my dad over who was my business partner with my company at the time. We actually saw a passive house and so we’re like, okay, we better be working on prefab passive house. We then came back in 2014. I took the first, my first passive house course. And again, you talk about some of the leaders in the industry. That was a packed class of leaders that we got to connect with. And then in 2017, I went all in. I started with the Passive House Tradesperson course, and then I just went around to every single conference around the world to learn about Passive Houses. And then from there, because I took a course at BCIT, I asked, Hey, can I potentially teach? And within months later I was one of their instructors and after that just been feeding on more information, a passive house and just a sponge to it all. And still to this day I probably spend more hours learning about passive house than most people. But just because I just love it. It’s one of those standards where it is the highest standard you can achieve. And once you’re there, then you know that you’re going to build a comfortable, healthy, energy efficient house that’s going to have no bugs and no dust and every quality. From a sound standpoint, like there’s just so much great attributes about building a passive house that I want everyone to have one. And so now it’s a question of how can I teach people and inspire people to have a resilient, prefab, passive house?
[00:03:51] Jennifer-Lee: I just love your passion about it because when we talk to people about passive house I realize it’s something that we’re starting to have to do and even net zero homes and everything, and especially with step code. But I just love the fact that you’re so into it. It’s not just something that we have to do, it’s something that you really believe in. And I think that is so great. How did you end up going from your knowledge of passive homes and taking that with you to joining up with Clay Construction?
[00:04:17] Shaun: I had a company with my dad and we were looking at building our first passive houses and kind of in that spot where I had a property with another architect friend, and we were trying to get everything aligned with our families to do a duplex and he was so busy being an architect and designing big passive house projects that he ran out of the time for us. And so, a couple years passed and I was kind of trying to figure out what to do with my career and where to move our company. We wanted to walk the talk and build our first passive house. And sometimes, you know, things happen on a Friday. I got a call from 475 and they wanted me to join their team to help educate more people about passive houses across Canada. And so, I joined their team and, so that whole journey of continually educating. And then Larry called me one day too and said, hey, you know, would you like to join our team because we want to build to that standard and you know, you seem to be very knowledgeable in this area and we want you to be part of the team and seemed like a great fit. I always tell my kids that you know, I love Lego and so I might as well just keep building Lego, except in Vancouver it’s like million dollars of Lego kits. But I was really inspired to not only, you know, continue to teach people how to build passive homes, but to get into the trenches. And when I was working with 475, some of the concerns I had is like, you’re just a sales guy. And I was like, no, I’m a product consultant, like I want to teach people. And being a builder and being in the trenches, you definitely get a bit more respect in the industry. And I wanted to figure out some of the bottlenecks that an industry has about moving it forward. The step code was implemented, and it had you know, I bought a 12 year, you know, lead time for it to get to the last stage. And I’m like, we should be building passive houses or to the highest standard now and what is some of the issues we’re facing. And so, I decided to get into the trenches and work with Larry and build high performance homes and work through some of the issues that we’re facing as an industry.
[00:06:11] Jennifer-Lee: there’s always so much talk about Net Zero and passive house, and I never know what one is, right? Or if one is better than another or if they’re the same.
[00:06:19] Shaun: So, you can get to net zero by literally building a code house and slapping as many solar panels on the roof as possible, or in the yard or whatever size it takes to get you to net zero, which means that the energy that the house is consuming is an offset by renewable energy. That is one way of getting there. I prefer, because a lot of times in our cities we don’t have a lot of roof area and the actual embodied carbon of a solar panel is actually number two behind concrete when we’re looking at material choices. So, I would rather use the Passive House principles to get to net zero. Not only are you going to enjoy the benefits of a passive house, the comfort, the energy efficiency, the healthy home. But you’ll also have an opportunity to use materials that can create a 200 plus year old home because you’re doing an envelope-first approach. And so, when clients ask us, how do we, what pathway do we want to choose to get to Net zero? We will use the passive house principles to get there, and even if you don’t get your passive house certified, or if you, maybe you don’t get to being a hundred percent of a passive house the methodology towards net zero is what I recommend to everyone is use the five passive principles and work towards envelope first and enjoy the benefits of Net Zero. Because once you’re net zero ready with the PAs principles, find your renewable energy, slap it on the roof, slap it on wherever you can, and then enjoy being off grid.
[00:07:49] Jennifer-Lee: And the other thing that comes up with is because I know everyone’s like net zero passive home. It just seems like kind of like, I hate using the word money grab, because I know that’s not what it is. But I think as a consumer, everyone’s like, ugh, now we got to go through this hurdle again. Now we have got to hit this step code that I don’t fully understand and what is that going to cost? So, what is the cost of these homes? Is that going to obviously, I feel like it’s probably more beneficial down the line, like maybe you won’t see the cost savings at the moment, but I think you might have sticker shock at first, but it might be getting better down the road.
[00:08:20] Shaun: Yeah. Right now, the industry is facing what Gord Cook calls the dumb tax. It’s the education process of our industry to scale so that we all have the knowledge to do it effectively. And so, in a sense, like I’ve gone through the dumb tax personally by investing in it and going to do it, but I kind of was passionate and loved it. So to me it wasn’t a hard thing to sell me on because I just knew by learning this one, it definitely was going to put me ahead of the curve. But it also, I knew that, you know, that’s the way we should be building and seeing the European way of it all was okay. Like they’re already head of us doing it. We just need to get on board and get on it. So, the, the big sticker price that everyone looks at is, okay, what is the cost? And right now, once you’re able to get through the dumb tax of learning through the practices of creating an airtight building and making sure you’ve got the right insulation on your walls and the right methodology to your process, typically we say that it costs 2% more to your build, and that’s going to be 2% more to the construction cost, which to the homeowner means that their mortgage is going to be higher. But at the end of the day, when I give them the keys to their house, their energy bill is going to be that much lower so that by the end of the month, money going out the door is going to be zero. So now we’re saying that we can build a passive house at zero extra cost because of the money going out the door. So, to the homeowner, that’s always the cost. Conversation is at zero. But to the builder it is more because you’re adding better windows. More of a sweater, so more insulation and again, making sure that all of your systems are in place to ensure that you have that fresh air machine working and it’s balanced.
[00:10:08] Jennifer-Lee: I love that idea. The dumb tax. And I think that could apply to many industries. Because I think that’s the thing is a lot of us want to see a cheaper cost up front for anything that we purchase, but we don’t think about the longevity either. Or the potential savings. Like you could go out and buy anything cheap right now. A really cheap car, a cheap pair of pants, but like how long are those going to last us? Like we always want to see the cheap price up front, but we never think about the long-term price or the health benefits. As well. Like I know passive net zero have way more health benefits than your traditional, stick building home.
[00:10:41] Shaun: I used to tell people that, you know, that we’re really good at building cabins with really nice kitchens and baths because when you look at how we would build a cabin and how we would build, you know, kind of like I say, a step code one home, there’s not much difference. But yet now when you’re building to the step five or passive house standard, you’re kind of creating like a hospital room where it’s got filter fresh air. It’s quiet. It feels nice. You can go up, walk up to the window or be in the middle of room and you have the same temperature. I mean, what’s really interesting about passive house is from that whole health aspect is just you learn about, filter fresh air and what that’s like you learn about indoor toxins that can affect your health and, you know, long-term. Things that we didn’t know about. You know, some of the issues in the eighties with asthma, well, we all know that’s about poor construction of our homes, not letting your homes dry out. And so, once you start to kind of dive into the nitty grit, you’re like, wow, this just makes sense. And at the end of the day, it’s based on building science and there’s data to prove things. And so, people can’t say, hey, you know, passive houses are bad. Well, they could be, you know, expensive, you don’t know how to build them, but the benefits from a scientific standpoint just outweigh all of the critics. And so, it’s like, hey, let’s just do this. It just makes sense. It’s based on building science. It’s not really rocket science. And we can all together get there if we kind of learn from each other. And one thing that’s been nice about the PH Force community is just how collaborative it’s, we know that this is the method that we’re all going to be moving towards. So why don’t we share and communicate and teach each other how to get there faster. And so that kind of European kind of business approach has created just an amazing community. And I’m really lucky to be involved in it here in Vancouver, but with Passive House Canada and with the Passive Accelerator and just even the international Passive House community, I mean, it’s, it’s great how during covid we, we’ve come together and we’ve created other events where, again, we’re continually sharing. And so it’s just, it’s really great to be in a community that is wanting to build better, to have a method to get there. And then we’re learning and sharing together.
[00:12:52] Jennifer-Lee: And I love the fact that we’re taking time to think about the materials we put in because I always think about it as a kid we had a basement suite and well, obviously there was a crawl space, but my brother and I would play down there. My dad’s like, don’t touch that pink insulation. It’s bad for you. But then I think about it now and I’m like, if it’s bad for us to touch it, why would we put it in our wall? Because isn’t that like not great for like our overall health?
[00:13:13] Shaun: Yeah, no, the last kind of say five years for me from a learning curve has been quite interesting because I dove into passive, which is looking at the operating carbon of our home. So how, you know, the energy required to make homes heat and cool and have nice hot water. But the other aspect that’s kind of been trending as well is the embodied carbon. And now when you look at, say, achieving net zero, there’s kind of like this great little equation that we use is you work on the envelope first using the PAs principles, then you look at the carbon footprint of your material. So, the embodied carbon, or the upfront carbon, depending on the term you want to use, then looking about making your homes electrified and then adding the renewable energy, so the solar panels, and that gets you to that net zero aspect. So, it’s great when you’re trying to achieve something that there’s a nice roadmap to kind of help guide you there. And the envelope first approach matters to builders because when you’re looking at the step code or passive or say, okay, well as a builder, what can I do? Because I don’t quite understand it. And how do I play a part in it? Well, we know that the designers, the architects will manage, you know, the glazing area and the types of windows. They’ll look at how much insulation can kind of fit depending on the zoning issues. Well, the builder really helps kind of drive the kind of the system because of air tightness. If you can get to that passive level or tightness or Step Five and so just to kind of clarify, is Step Five gets to one air change and passive House 0.6. And so that’s that higher level where when you go from current homes, you could get 90% more energy efficient building. And so now we’re at Step Three as of May 1st. And so going from even 2.5 to one means about 40, 60% of energy improvements just by making sure your envelope is gift wrapped. And I always tell my clients like, now that we’re working on these lower levels of air tightness, we’re gift wrapping your home. And you know, I’m going to put a bow on it when I turn over their homes so they can really enjoy this, you know. Nice. Present that. That we’re working towards.
[00:15:13] Mike: One of the things you hear talking to builders and talking to consumers as well, is the misconception that these are more expensive homes, and you somewhat address that in your head. Is there sort of an amortization period? So, if I build one of these homes, what would be my amortization period based on current electrical rates? Because we know that’s going to go up as well significantly.
[00:15:31] Shaun: So, if you are an experienced passive builder, that amortization is going to be one month. Typically, when I give you the key and you’re getting it back, you’re making the difference back because, like I said earlier, is your mortgage is going to be higher, but your energy bills are lower. So at the end of the month, you’re paying the same amount of money. Now, if you haven’t built a passive house and you have to need to deal with a little bit of that dumb tax, there could be up to six to 10% more that the build costs could occur because you’re trying to learn, you know, your method in process. And that’s the issue now is we’ve got this runway for the step code to be implemented so that the construction industry can learn to ensure that they know how to get there, the right way. And that’s where, you know I always kind of teased the step code committee by being like, you know what, I’m only going to learn one step. I’m learning step five because I don’t want to learn five steps. I just want to learn one step and get past that dumb curve. And that’s where when I was teaching builders is just learn how to get to one air change. If you don’t get there, you’re still going to be ahead of the limit that the municipality is going to require you on. But if as you’re getting towards one, you’re, you’re going to be able to future proof your home, you’re going to be able to tell your clients that, hey, giving you a house that is nine years ahead of the current code and you get to enjoy all the benefits of it now.
[00:16:52] Mike: So, in your travels, you’re obviously working of the very accomplished builder right now who’s very comfortable and adept in this space, but we’re dealing with an industry that’s catching up. We are somewhat backfilling to where some of you guys already are. What are some of the challenges you’re facing across a more broad spectrum of the building industry and how are some of some of the ways that we can scale it, both as homeowners and consumers, as well as professionals in this industry?
[00:17:15] Shaun: One thing that we’re lucky is some of the European products have now been readily available. In North America, the mechanical is the, I’d say, biggest hurdle that we need to get through of trying to understand how we can incorporate heat pumps, the benefits of the HRV, the fresh air machine in our homes to ensure that they’re properly balanced. And I also think there’s maybe a bit of a cultural thing too is at Clay we don’t call subcontractors subs anymore. We call them specialists. And so, by changing the language we use, the way that we talk about how we build is the way that we’re going to communicate the message that we’re trying to do about building, you know, buildings better. More rapidly is we need to change our language. So, I think right now the language of how we discuss high performance homes and even like right now we’re having a discussion of like net zero or passives. Well, you know, what’s the difference between the two of them? Well, again, they’re different kind of terms in industry that different organizations have kind of grabbed upon. And it’s unfortunate, like passive house, as much as I love it, it’s not a great marketing term, but in Germany it makes sense when you convert it to English it doesn’t. And so you’re trying to figure out how do you sell or how do you market a high-performance home? A home that has the benefits of being comfortable, healthy, resilient, energy efficiency, having no dust, no bugs. You know, it’s tough to try to figure out a brand name that can work across the industry so that people are motivated to build that higher performance or higher standard.
[00:18:50] Mike: Hopefully one day it’s just become standard and it’s a house, but for now we’re working on it.
[00:18:54] Shaun: So, by 2032, that’s where in a sense, the passive house community will be out of work because they’re just building passive houses, you know? So, we’re going to be looking at how do we do different things. And that’s why with the kind of learning curve that I’ve gone through in five years of understanding about operating carbon and embodied carbon and electrification, and renewable energy sources. It’s been intriguing to try to figure out what is the metric of how do you build to those higher performances when our good friend Steve Kemp talks about there’s 1.4 million decisions to make when you build a house and yet you end up with 80 products. Well, how do you guide your clients and the construction industry to get there as fast as you can? It’s a challenge.
[00:19:39] Mike: Do you think some of the stigma around the building communities changing as we sort of move to higher technical proficiency?
[00:19:44] Shaun: Yeah. I mean, I think as individuals, as humans mean it’s difficult to change. So, you have an industry that when you look at the metrics of evolution of the construction industry I think is like negative 1.7 on like the Kingsley report. We actually are decreasing inefficiency, which is kind of s tongue twister to say and to kind of like think about it. Whereas technology and some of the other industries, they’ve scaled like 1700%. And yet in construction we’re actually doing things slower and more inefficient. And, uh, you know, people talk about like a labor shortage. No, we have a production shortage or issue. We just need to figure out how to build more effectively. More efficiently so that we can all enjoy the benefits of, of high performance home.
[00:20:28] Mike: One of our previous guests, Brian Baumler, uh, talked about the changing language of the industry sort of changing to meet the industry’s changes itself. Yeah. Can you talk a little about that?
[00:20:37] Shaun: Yeah, I agree with that completely because, you know, we all have the ability to build better. I mean, as humans, you know, we want to build, we want to do good things. We want to create, you know, a better environment for and better cultures for ourselves. And so, by trying to use different language when you look at the passive, those principles, for example, like when I talked about it’s more insulation, better windows, more air tightness. Installing an HRV and then thermal bridging, which people are like, what’s a thermal bridge? So even taking those five principles that are pretty scientific and try to break them down where it’s, we’re going to gift wrap your homes, you’re going to put a sweater on your home. Like, I mean, people love the story too, is when you grew up and you got cold and you said, Hey, mom and dad, turn on the heat, and like, no, put on a sweater. Well, okay, so let’s just do that to our homes. You know, windows are an interesting thing because for the most of the time they’ve been the, you know, biggest leakers of our homes. But yet we need day lighting. We need the glazing system to ensure we have a connection to outside. So, you know, the windows play a very important role for our comfort levels, and yet when you look at it, not just as a window, but as a, you know, a connection point. Well, how can we easily make that particular product better so that we can enjoy our connection to the outdoors? Because now we’re indoors for 80% of the time and, and a lot of times we’re in bad buildings, buildings that are unhealthy, buildings that are affecting our comfort level, because of not enough lighting or not enough fresh air or just like even now I have an indoor air quality monitor in my office, and it is crazy when I close the door and the CO2 levels get high and I start yawning. I’m like, oh, it’s time for coffee. No, I’ve just killed all the oxygen in the room, so I need to open a window. And to realizing that that small change of creating a change in the environment by opening a door, opening window to get fresh air and can change my productivity. I mean, I didn’t know this stuff like five years ago. And as you start to like learn about the passive house world, you just understand about all these little things that the industry is learning about and trying to educate so that we can have better buildings because we’re creating environments that we’re spending more time indoors.
[00:22:49] Jennifer-Lee: It’s so funny that you say all that because I remember growing up and my mom would always be like, make sure you open a window and you go to bed so you don’t feel gross the next morning. And I’m like, well, if we’re thinking about that, that means we’re not living in good homes. And now with passive house stuff, you don’t need to crack open a window necessarily because there’re there are quality so much better. But like, I live in a 1912 building and I don’t open it that much because it’s been like super cold. But man, I feel my nose the next morning. And everything. You’re like, okay, I’ve been sleeping with all the dust.
[00:23:23] Shaun: That’s what’s so important about having a fresh air machine. I mean, people call it an HRV, it’s a heat recovery ventilator. You know, that’s a pretty nerdy engineering phrase for something that is so important to living in a closed building, and people are like, oh, well, homes need to breathe. Absolutely they do through a fresh air machine. The fact that our current homes breathe through walls that have contaminants in them. That’s not healthy for us. So, if they’re gift wrapped, nicely wrapped in a nice sweater, um, and then have the fresh air machine that is in a sense bringing in fresh air from the outside, filtering it so that it actually warms up, so you’re getting warmer air coming through and you’re getting the change, the process every three hours, it means like every three hours your house is getting fresh air. Most homes that are built in 1912, change it every like four to six hours, but it’s through all the walls. Yeah. in our kind of mid-eighties to 2000, the homes, if they don’t have a fresh air machine or running a fan, it takes up to two days. So, just think of all the mold and mildew being built up in your showers or kitchens because of all that excess moisture that’s not being removed.
[00:24:31] Mike: And just to particulate, when you’re cooking in that smoke is going through your house, there are so many things that impact indoor air quality. And what’s great is not just in the passive or net zero space, but in the whole industry, starting this paradigmatic shift towards talking about the air we breathe and not just the walls around us where we live. So, this is a great. First step, and I really like to think about you’re doing and what the rest of the community’s doing as no different than the first person who bought a CD player. They’re an early adopter. They’re paying a little bit of a premium to get a really neat experience. And eventually everything else will catch up. But before they do, we do need to take a light short break. That has been an incredibly insightful conversation and your take on building a step code five, net zero and passive house, and how we should approach budgets and even how to challenge the process to build better is intriguing and I want to talk a lot more because this is such a deep dive, but such a relevant conversation to all of us. So, we want to talk a little bit more about consumer choice and the challenges we face when we’re building to these higher levels. However, like I said, we do need to take a quick break to thank our awesome podcast partners.
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[00:27:19] Mike: All right, welcome back, Shaun. I want to have a little chat with you about something that’s an interesting conversation and it’s an important conversation and that is the choices we as homeowners or consumers have. So, let me give you an example. I’m starting to plan the house I want to build. I definitely want gas from my stove. I want a smart cooktop from our friends at Trail Appliances. I want the gorgeous countertops from Vicostone. I want all of that in my kitchen. But I also know that if I say put gas in my kitchen, that comes with a price of the output of that house. How do I balance things like my nice gas stove that I want to put in my new home with the methodology and the goals of net zero passive building?
[00:28:04] Shaun: We’re definitely seeing a trend in passive houses where we’re electrifying, the units and so we’re seeing people cooking with induction stoves and moving towards that. that methodology. And so, you know, people have concerns about, you know, the cooking, but now we’re having chefs come into play and saying, Hey, we can still have these fine, beautiful meals on this type of stove. My view of it is, again, you’re looking at this airtight home and now you’re filling it with particulates and so I prefer to keep, you know, the gas out because of just the indoor air quality items.
[00:28:40] Jennifer-Lee: I always think about the microwave as well. And, and that’s a big one. And now they have induction microwaves, which are so much nicer. I want one because I’m always thinking, I’m like, what are we doing to our health? And again, these are the things that we don’t think about when we’re building a home or renovating a home. It’s just like, we want all the fancy stuff inside, which is great, but we don’t think about like, How is it actually affecting our everyday life? I think a lot of the times we think of a new home or a new renovation as just an aesthetic purchase. We don’t actually think of it as a livable purchase.
[00:29:10] Shaun: Yeah. And even just coming back via trends, like we’ll probably see in five to 10 years that we’re gonna move away from induction and go back to electric stoves because, you know, the, the Europeans are also looking at EMF and kind of like that tinfoil in your head conehead approach to kind of things? Well, there are some research that indicates that induction is, is not that great, but it’s a question of like, how do we keep improving so that we’re using, you know, the good, better, best scenario and trying to improve our homes and using better methodologies to, to enjoy the comforts of indoor living.
[00:29:42] Mike: And I think there’s some technology that helps us as well. So as an example, if I do end up putting a gas cooktop in, I can get a Smart hood fan that goes on top of it automatically turns on to help manage that air quality as well. So, we definitely have a lot of choices as consumers. Yeah, as you do as a builder, which are what you recommend to us as well. How do those choices impact our budget?
[00:30:02] Shaun: So, with the stove, for example, is if you still want to have a gas stove and a passive house, which you can do, and even you can still have a gas fireplace. When it comes to the cooktop though is you’re going to have to install a makeup air unit because the hood fan when it gets turned on will pretty much ensure that you can’t exit the building because there’s no air to pull through the walls. And so all of a sudden you go to open up your door and you can’t because it’s literally sucked it all the air in. So again, you have to put in the makeup air unit to make sure that as you’re sucking air out and exhausting, you know, the toxins from your stove that you’re dumping air back into the house. To make sure that it’s balanced. So again, there’s, we do know that if you want to have that choice, how to ensure that your home is comfortable while you’re cooking and because I’m sure some people want to like run off to the barbecue and you’ve got stuff cooking on the stove and the barbecue and you’ve can’t get out. So that’s, again, it’s understanding the systems and how they all work together. Um, and even with the fireplace people, we’re cave people. We love a fireplace. Yet when you’re in a passive house, that fireplace will overheat your home in seconds. And so, you can have a fireplace, but you’re going to have to open up the window. And again, we’ve done some passive houses within my community in Brooklyn and we’re pretty adamant about it. And all of a sudden, you know, that client’s like, yeah, I turn on my fireplace because I enjoy that ambience that fireplace gives us. But I open up a window. Lot of passive homes will put a fireplace outside so that you have these beautiful high performance homes, triple pane windows in the living room and kitchen that you can see the fire right outside the space, but it’s a fireplace in and outdoor living or sitting area outside. So yeah, we’ve gone through these decisions and opportunities and, and given people choice of saying, if you do want this, here’s how you can enjoy it.
[00:31:59] Jennifer-Lee: I think you just say it’s the power of choice, because I think a lot of the times when we hear things like passive house or net zero home, we just feel like it’s a one size fit all, and nobody actually says like, oh, you could have your choice. I think again, going back to your earlier conversation of changing the names of these things, I think making them a more common place practice, like Mike was saying, is going to help. Because I think a lot of times people just don’t realize that it’s a standard. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have everything you want. It’s just working with the right team and the people that are qualified to guide you in the right choices that are going to work for that particular building or that particular code.
[00:32:36] Shaun: Yeah. And like you talk about wall decisions. There’s four different type of walls you could build to get to passive houses. Pick your methodology. But again, work on your metrics so that you can build a resilient prefab and I include prefab because I think we’re moving towards prefabrication to help get things built faster and better, towards passive houses, and I will always talk about that. Getting to that type of home needs to be affordable. We need to be working on how to get this to the masses, and that’s not just a luxury item. Right now we’ve been able to get through, you know, the dump tax by kind of like the Tesla model. The Roadster clients where they invested in this technology, they had the money. They’ve built their passive homes that were mansions. That would not be maybe the ideal candidates for a passive house but it’s helped the industry learn how to get there and so that we can kind of get like the model three out to everybody. So, when we talk to people about a passive house, it’s not just for the rich, it’s for everybody. And we have been working on how to get there affordably. Even though, again, Vancouver, every home is an expensive item, it’s a luxury item. But by working through client’s budgets, we can get there so that people can enjoy the benefits of a comfortable, healthy, energy efficient home.
[00:33:54] Mike: Thinking about the five or so years I’ve been involved in this industry, it’s gone from being an inexpensive unicorn that people sort of talked about in an esoteric sense to slowly transitioning to commonplace, which is really, really exciting. There are some barriers, obviously, and when we’re talking about in our previous conversation, we’re talking about potentially moving to all electric in the future. What are some of the barriers that are faced to moving to an electric only home? Because that’s obviously going to change a lot of things in the home, not just how we’re running it?
[00:34:30] Shaun: Yeah, so the kind of the running port is, is kind of the big portion is, so it’s looking at our mechanical systems. So passive house, the reason that you are reducing the cost of operating it through, you know, the amount of energy it needs is reducing the demand on heating and cooling. So, typically you’re either heating your home with electric baseboards or a gas furnace and we’re seeing a trend to moving to heat pumps. And the nerdy part of that kind of trend is, is the kind of output of energy. When you would use, say, baseboard, heat pump or furnace one input of energy gives you, one output of heat where, heat pumps give you a one to three ratio if you’re getting a more energy efficient heat pump. But the next thing about a heat pump is it’s got this two in one system, you’re getting heating and you’re getting cooling. So, it’s not like you need to have a baseboard heater, a furnace as well as an air conditioning unit. You’re getting it all in one and when the majority of the year your home is at that comfortable level. We all like between 19 and 22 degrees in our home where for most of the year that envelope first approach is keeping that temperature consistent in your home. And so, you don’t need to have it heating or cooling or accelerated to kind of manage your home every day. You’re getting this consistent, balanced comfort feeling. As I said earlier, when you’re right beside the window or you’re in the middle of the room, your toes and your head are at that same temperature, and humans feel discomfort at about a two degree difference between your core and your toes. And so, if you’re able to create an environment that is well-balanced, then you don’t have to worry about, having to put on a sweater every few minutes or putting on your slippers. You can run around in your shorts and be happy and you don’t have to worry about the different temperatures.
Especially where in Vancouver where we have a lot of two to three story homes the upper floors on a summer day are usually too hot. And in our heat domes, you can’t even sleep up there. You have to sleep in the basement. Where in a high-performance home you know, temperature that is comfortable throughout the spaces. So, the first one is seeing the trend and change from our heating and cooling systems to a heat pump. And there’s lots of conversations of like, is it now an air to source? Or an air to air and trying to figure out what’s the best unit for our homes. And we were relying on a lot of European or overseas made.
Products and we’re seeing, local manufacturing, which is great because we want to see the local economy thrive and seeing innovation within our communities. Then we get to hot water and what systems are creating it, you know, used to be again, gas, hot water tanks and seeing again, trend to electric, hot water tanks and even heat pump, electric hot water tanks. So, those are the two areas that you’re seeing innovation right now.The fact that,the air barriers, we’ve got materials we can get in from Europe, really available. But same thing too is we’re seeing innovation in our local markets. And so, we have methodologies to create that nicely gift wrapped home locally. So again, lots of choices on how to get to high performance. Everyone needs to figure out what method they want to pursue. The method that we’re looking at. Clay is one that is low embodied carbon, looking at our material choices, and try to find ways to create efficiencies so we can create an affordable solution so, our clients ideally don’t have to even pay the 2% upgrade because we are able to find the balance.
[00:38:05] Jennifer-Lee: Another barrier I’m wondering, and this is something that I don’t know if we can all fix, is the fact that if everybody goes electric, do we have the infrastructure for it? Especially in some of the older neighborhoods in Vancouver. I even know from my family building. We’re having to go to the city and we’re going to have to get a new transformer, and they’re having to upgrade the streets. So, as more and more people come on, how do we solve that issue?
[00:38:26] Shaun: Yeah, no, that’s, that’s a probably even a bigger question for me. I mean, my answer comes back from conversations I’ve had with BC Hydro and Fortis BC. I’ve, how to kind of manage that. You know, if everyone switched to electrification right now with our leaky homes, yeah, the grid won’t do it because the energy requirements for heating and cooling would overdo or, or exceed our, you know, our current systems. But by retrofitting our buildings, and even just to take a step back is, you know, we’re talking about passive homes or high performance for new homes. You’re going to see a wave in the next three to five years on retrofits. Retrofits are going to be one of the key phrases we’re going to be talking about because every building that in a sense is not a passive house or step five in Canada has to get re-skinned. And it’s unfortunate where we’ve already gone through the whole leaky condo industry and we could have built all these nice energy efficient buildings when we had to refix or reclad. You know, there’s a lot of buildings that we’re going to have to upgrade so that they’re not going to need. As much energy to heat and cool, and to create hot water. So, as we evolve, change, innovate, we’re going to be looking at how do we manage the the skins of these buildings as we’re electrifying them. So, yeah, it’s not going to be an overnight thing. It’s going to be a collective effort, kind of, from the masses to get there because you’re right, the infrastructure needs to be improved. The buildings need to be improved so we can reach our goals. But again, some people don’t like living in Vancouver because it’s, it’s trying to achieve to be the greenest city in North America. I actually think it’s fantastic. You know, it’s a third best city in the world. And I’m privileged and lucky to live here and I just want to make it more beautiful. And if I can offer a way and if I can teach people how to build better buildings that’s what’s going to keep me going. Because I know this community is wanting it and we’re seeing the trends, I mean, the one thing that I’ve been lucky is, is if I take a step back before passive houses, originally I wanted to build sustainable homes.
And then we got into greenwash. And then I realize now, in the last two years, it’s all about resiliency. And that’s where I change from, sustainable, prefab, passive homes to resilient, prefab passive homes. Because resiliency is key. And if we can build better buildings, we can help manage the issues of arctic flows or atmospheric rivers or heat domes. These other weather, extreme weather events we’ve had recently. So, if we can build better, then our systems will be less burden upon, and that’s where as a collective, we need to work towards. That’s a bit of a wide winded answer.
[00:41:15] Jennifer-Lee: I think it’s great because like there’s so, things you touched upon and like, I said, I live in a 1912 thing. And the windows are terrible. Like, I just moved in in August and I noticed like the other day when it’s been really cold, I was like, Where’s the wind coming from? And I’m like, everything is sealed shut. And I was like oh no. I was like, it feels like I’m outside. And so again, we’re, we’re going to have to, but like I. That’s a long rabbit hole. Probably not go down, but like how do you change those buildings? Like does it even just changing the windows help improve it? Probably to a degree, but like, you’d probably really have to like do a whole like well Reno of that building.
[00:41:54] Shaun: Yeah. Well again, this is what I love about the passive house movement because they have a retrofit kind of methodology to how do you fix old buildings. And so what’s nice about it is, we have this device called the Red Door Truth. It’s a blower door test. And so, we put this machine in and we figure out how leaky our buildings are, and ideally we’re never going to get to a hundred percent, even though a few of our builders have tried to get the record for the lowest airtight building, which is great, but you know, once you get below one or 0.6, it’s good enough. You’ve achieved the standard to get records which is a bit of egotistical, you know, nonsense that I definitely wanted to get to, but I enjoy the pursuit of improving it and at least, you know, figuring out where the issues are. And so, on a new build, air tightness is key. On a retrofit because of the cost typically, windows is where you start with because those are easy to improve. And so, the fact that you can model and even on a new build, we always start, we always have this methodologies, you model your pathway to get there. We can do the same on a retrofit. So, you do a blower door test to see how leaky it is. And identify where the leaks are, and then you’re like going after the elephants, you’re trying to take care of the biggest issues, and then working towards the, the small, small items. And you can do it all in once or you could do a retrofit over five or 10 years and just slowly pick away at it as you try to improve the building.
[00:43:24] Mike: And there’s some cool new technology coming on board to help us as well. I mean, we’re going talk about this a little bit later on with some other guests as well. But the bottom line is solar technology has really exceeded even where it was three to five years ago, and the ability to plug in like your electric vehicle as a charge as a storage solution is really coming to bear. So, an older house, a mine, there’s two parts to it. The comfort element, which you talked about, the windows and the barrier and the energy efficiency as well. So, it’s an extremely, extremely exciting time, not only to be a builder or, or a renovator, but also to be a homeowner as well.
[00:44:00] Mike: Because we have this myriad of amazing choices that we never had before. And we can choose not just to get by, but to actually make improvements to our, our indoor air quality improvements to how we live in our home, improvements to how our family stays comfortable during the colder and hotter months of the year. And it’s, it’s nothing short of a revolution, which is really exciting to be a part of.
[00:44:22] Shaun: Yeah. And that whole thing about change is, you know, there’s some people, I guess for me, I guess I really enjoy change because I’m willing to be out there learning about passive house, before people, you know, there’s people again, like you’ve kind of said is they fear the passive house movement because they don’t understand what that comfort level is. And I was involved in the Ice Box challenge where we tried to show people the difference of a passive house versus a code built and ice melting and stuff. And, and for me it’s, it’s how do we get more people into passive house buildings? And we’re lucky because our municipality in our province has been looking at building, you know, bigger buildings, museums, school, so that we’re able to touch and feel it on a bigger scale than just these one-off single-family homes. I really think that we should have an Airbnb house that we all could just go and experience because when you step into it and you close the door and it’s quieter and there’s even like a difference in fresh air, you honestly see the difference as soon as you take that first step into it. And I would love for all of us, and this is why I wanted to build one – I’m looking forward to one day living in a passive home so I can really walk the talk. But I’ve been enough passive houses and when you experience that difference of comfort, you’re going to be like, wow. This is why we want to do this. This is why the passive house is so much better is you just feel the difference and until you do, you don’t know. And so, it’s like, why should I change because I don’t know that I need that.
[00:45:57] Jennifer-Lee: I love how passionate you are and how much of a leader you are in the industry, and you do something else to kind of like get people involved. Can you tell us a little bit about your is it like seven day forecast?
[00:46:10] Shaun: Yeah. So, couple things that I’m involved in. So, on Sunday mornings, a friend of mine, mark, who again, I’ve met through Covid, so I’m sure all of us have met. A whole bunch of different people during Covid. I call my Covid best friend because I’ve accidentally, you know, seen him twice, only in the last four months. Where we kind of break down. It’s called the five-day forecast.
[00:46:33] Jennifer-Lee: okay. Maybe, maybe that’s a new one.
[00:46:35] Shaun: We kind of give the weekend off, but in the five-day forecast there’s a lot of Fs. In there and we replace all the F’s with a pH, and of course the pH stands for Passive House. And we do that because we want to get Passive House recognized and people to think about like, okay, this guy’s talking about Passive House, you know, every week and we’ve been doing it for 134 weeks. Just trying to promote more high performance events. One of the big events that we highlight is the Passive House Accelerator event where during Covid we worried about our community not having to, having a connection. And now with the opportunity with Zoom and meeting online you know, we’re regularly having 200 to 250 people from around North America hopping online sharing passive house projects and techniques, technology and, and technical details of how passive homes can be achieved. And having that information out there, having again, like that community sharing and learning and collaborating together is just amazing. And the fact that it’s not just here in Vancouver that it’s you know, over the planet is pretty cool to be involved in. So you know, happy to, even with Passive House Canada having events here. One of the fun events that hopefully people put on their radars for July is we do a bike tour of what I call the Unofficial Passive Street of Dreams here in Vancouver along Ontario Street from city hall all the way to 61st. There’s about 14 different passive houses that we love to showcase. And so, to get people on a bike, and over the years we’ve done it through the rain in the sun. I mean, Vancouverites are pretty amazing when they want to learn, they’ll fight through the weather to learn.
[00:48:22] Mike: And so, well, once someone’s lived here for two years, they grow a bit of resiliency, and they can get along with everybody else. The five day forecast is actually one of my favorite things. I get up every Sunday morning, I put on a record, I grab a cup of coffee, and I start looking through my LinkedIn and it’s almost like I feed off of your energy. I’m like, how the heck does this guy do this on a Sunday morning? Obviously doesn’t record it on a Sunday morning. That’s the secret.
[00:48:43] Jennifer-Lee: He says he took the weekend off.
[00:48:45] Shaun: Well, you know what, so you talk about efficiencies is, we figured out how to take that process and so we can pull off a five-day forecast in about 20 minutes. And again, talk about community is now we’ve involved a couple other individuals and so, you know, we are able to work our times together that we bring on an individual from New Brunswick, bring another gentleman from Campbell River so the four of us will hop on quickly and record it and then you are able to. You know, dump it out to the different feeds and yeah, we do it on a Sunday, usually at 2:00 PM Pacific time. Quick and efficient.
[00:49:14] Mike: It’s, it’s awesome. Now, the other thing is you and I work behind the scenes as well. We’re both Jennifer as well. We’re all very active in the Home Buildings Association or HAVAN. We love this group. We love being a part of it. And you and I work together in the education and training committee, and that’s a really important group because we’re essentially evangelizing this thing that you’re talking about to the greater community and helping the rest of our builders backfill their experience so they can play in this new space. Can you talk a little about some of the things we do together with the Home Builders Association and how that’s helping your mandate as well?
[00:49:44] Shaun: Yeah, so the biggest event that we do every month is the Builder Breakfast Series. And so, working with Wendy and Keith and Mike Cairns, really fortunate to have a great committee that is working on, bringing in excellent speakers to create great presentations to help the industry learn. So, that’s a big one that we organize every month. It’s kind of interesting because if I just take a step back, I mean I’m really lucky because Larry Clay brought me involved on the technical committee which now we’ve turned into the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) where again, these were leaders in the industry that used to get together and share and kind of nerd out. And we realized it was like that wealth of knowledge we need to get out to the community. And so, by connecting with that eventually got me involved in the education technical committee, and happy to be a chair of it because I really want people to get access to information and to get connected with leaders in industry that are talented in what they do and have a craft or passionate about a certain aspect and so being able to work with you, Mike, and the rest of the committee to find these individuals and get them on the calendar and get them booked and be able to share their knowledge to our community and to HAVAN members again, very fortunate to be involved in that. And again, thanks for your efforts to get us bringing those, find those leaders.
[00:51:11] Mike: Well, you’re the one leading it. So, and that’s one thing people don’t really understand when they’re dealing with a HAVAN member, they’re not just dealing with our membership and the stickers we put on our trucks. They’re also having the benefit of all these experiences, all these other committees and all the other things we do to make sure that our members are the best equipped in the entire industry. Well, Shaun, thank you so much for taking time today to share your building knowledge. It’s extremely obvious to everybody who’s spoken to you at any point ever that you’re very passionate about passive house for the health, the comfort, and for everyone who’s occupying the home, not to mention for our environment. Now I could probably spend about a half hour and succinctly summarize all the points we talked about today, but at a very exceptionally high level we talked about the cost of building to the passive house levels and by cost, we talked about the line items and how to establish the budget. And the part that was most exciting to me was it’s actually not that much more expensive to build a passive house. And the energy savings, the amortization over a long period of time actually makes it less expensive. And can you even put a price on the cost of the health and safety and comfort in our own environment? We also talked about the importance of challenging the process because we’re still learning and a lot of the great things that happen in this world are a result of people challenging preconceived notions, taking into consideration consumer choice and the impacts this has on building materials of the end product, and that we’re still faced with barriers such as legislation and supply chain issues. But the future of this movement, the future of this style of building houses is very bright, very exciting, and we’re moving in a great direction.
[00:52:44] Jennifer-Lee: Shaun. I’m just so excited again to meet you because I hear so much about you through HAVAN. All good things, of course. And I finally got to meet you in the last little bit at a few different things now that we’re back to in person. But, before we go, can you tell us one more final tip, please.
[00:53:00] Shaun: If you’re building, please consider air tightness as key to your methodology. Air tightness will allow the clients to get to not only higher levels of comfort and health, but also from the budgeting standpoint is streamlining your mechanical systems. So, builders focus on building. Better build buildings through your tightness. Get or purchase your blower door red door truth so you can measure your tightness and work on improving your scores. And, by 2032, we’ll all be building near passive house. It’s pretty exciting times.
[00:53:35] Mike: Well, thank you very much, Shaun. It has been an absolutely great conversation to our listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please follow, like, share with your family and friends. The more followers we have the more people who will find our podcast and the excellent resources our guests like Shaun are sharing.
[00:53:49] Jennifer-Lee: And for notes and links in everything mentioned on today’s episode, including resources shared by Shaun St Amour from Clay Construction all you have to do is go to haven.ca/measuretwicecutonce. That’s a wrap for season five. And thank you Shaun for joining us and we’ll be back in September with Season Six featuring 2023 HAVAN Awards for Housing Excellence winners, showcasing Metro Vancouver’s best new home building, design and home renovation projects. Be sure to tune in as we check out the latest trends and connect with award-winning industry leading professionals. A great resource if you’re looking to build or renovate your own home. And don’t forget, if you’ve just joined us a season, be sure to check out our seasons before one to four as we explored the home building process, housing choices, healthy homes, and the Burden’s Real Time Reno. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:54:41] Mike: Yes, thank you for joining us.